Writing and Reading for Children and Teens

This is a quick post- (Believe me I will do my 3rd interview I just want to make sure it is well thought out and that my political opinions are explained adequately).

On Saturday I went to an awesome literary symposium put on by the Provo Library.  This was with my friend Emily Whitman who has been my BFF for 11 years.  With 2 kids and my busy work-life it is harder to get together than I would like, especially a full afternoon so Saturday was such a treat.

We got to meet Haven Kimmel who wrote the wonderful memoir A Girl Named Zippy- a book which holds a special place in my heart because it is about growing up in Indiana.  I have never met an author that I admire and it was so interesting to hear her perspective.  She seemed a little melancholy over the recent changes in the publishing industry and said:

“I’m not sure how to continue in an art form that has changed so much that I no longer know how to perform it.”

But she was also very funny and there was a spirited debate over the advent of ebooks.  In her mind they lessened the archival nature of a library, created a technological ‘upgrade’ need and excluded the poor/disadvantaged from the freedom provided by free books.  It was interesting to me because I purchased a kindle in August expecting to love it but I haven’t.  I rarely use it and prefer a real book that I can write notes in and arrows (I know you can do that in a kindle but I find it very tedious).

In fact, if anyone wants to buy a traditional 3G kindle I will give you a good deal (of course, they came out with the fire literally 2 weeks after my purchase!).

Anyway, the second session of the conference was on teen literature.  While it was interesting I disagreed with the attitude of the presenter.  She was a teacher in the public school system and to me she had a very defeatist attitude (she was a perky lady but still defeatist).

One of the first things she said was ‘It would be nice for my students to be reading more challenging books but at least they are reading’.  Then as she continued one of her main qualifications for a book being a good recommendation was that it was ‘really fast’.  I felt like she said that phrase 30 times in the hour. (Tell that to all the kids pouring through Harry Potter at 0ver 700 pages).

Her attitude annoyed me because I feel it is emblematic of a culture of compliance that we have in nurturing children and teenagers.  We could encourage them to do better, be more, but instead we are happy with the least modicum of effort.

I’m not saying every child has to read Foucault and Thoreau but let’s not assume they can’t.  Let’s see the greatest potential in all the people around us whether it is reading, dieting, learning, whatever. The greatest people in my life always saw my potential, the biggest disappointments failed to help nurture me (I still feel some resentment towards my high school choir teacher who stomped on my talent so hard I didn’t sing for 7 years in public after).

Once a child/teen is presented with reading options and they chose Diary of a Wimpy Kid, no problem.  At least they are reading something over nothing. (I have never read Wimpy kid but that was just the example the speaker used about what her high school senior kids are reading). I just want the options to be presented and to not assume they will immediately go for something less challenging.  I hated that assumption growing up.

It turns out there is quite a lively debate on this topic on the web spawned by an article in the New York Daily News by Alexander Nazaryan.

http://www.nydailynews.com/blogs/pageviews/2012/01/against-walter-dean-myers-and-the-dumbing-down-of-literature-those-kids-can-read-h

http://oinks.squeetus.com/2012/01/in-which-i-gamely-stick-out-my-tongue.html

I’m actually inclined to agree more with Nazaryan.  As mentioned above, this feeling comes from the way I felt as a child.  I hated being pandered too and treated like I was stupid because I was young.  I wanted nothing more than to be shown the respect I felt I deserved.  I wanted to be heard and taken seriously from a very young age.

One of my greatest goals if I am ever a parent is to let my children win an argument.  This might sound funny but I want them to know that they have the ability to think things through on their own and that Mother is not always right.  (Not every argument, but I want my kids to feel a freedom of expression and to learn to back up their thoughts as well as they can).

Basically my feeling on writing for children and teenagers is summed up best by Dr.  Seuss (a man who is about as creative as it gets, so proof my approach does not limit magic or youthfulness in kids):

I don’t write for children. I write for people.” Or, as he once told an interviewer, “I think I can communicate with kids because I don’t try to communicate with kids. Ninety percent of the children’s books patronize the child and say there’s a difference between you and me, so you listen to this story. I, for some reason or another, don’t do that. I treat the child as an equal.”

Finally, I think most teens are turned off of reading not because of difficult, boring books but because of the way those books are dissected in the classroom.    If kids were allowed to present their own point of view instead of over-analyzing character motivations and styles I think they wouldn’t be as turned off.  I think it is more a matter of approach than the material itself.

For Christmas I was debating about getting my 12 year old sister Pride and Prejudice, but I did and she was excited.  I could have gotten her Prom and Prejudice (as suggested by the speaker) but I had confidence to give her the real thing.  I think with a little digging we can see the literary potential of all of the people around us, especially the youth, and their life will be better for the faith we show in them.

It is also important to remember that you aren’t going to win with every suggestion.  They might even hate what you put out there for them to read but I think that is good.  Development of a critical eye and a well reasoned mind is part of the learning process.  I read Scarlet Letter as a teen and hated it, still do, but you can bet I can explain why I dislike it so much! I could then, I can now!

So, that’s my opinion on that.  What do you think?  How do you think we should approach reading for teens and children?  Are the classics still relevant and important to introduce or is just getting them reading enough?

(Nice what I think of as a quick post… 🙂 )

21 thoughts on “Writing and Reading for Children and Teens

  1. Adrienne Rivetti Jensen
    I totally agree with you! On two things. First, I have had the same experience with Kindle. I love the idea of having so many books in that tiny little package but I just prefer physical books. For traveling, the Kindle is great, but beyond that I read paper.

    Secondly, I totally agree about literature for teens. I think the dumbing down of literature is consistent with the general parenting/educational zeitgeist. We don’t want anything to be difficult, because heaven forbid a child fail at anything, ever. So we make everything easy enough that nobody has to exert any effort to succeed. And these kids are losing out because of it. Grade inflation that is simultaneous with lower and lower standardized test scores and an ever increasing percentage of college freshmen requiring remedial math and English courses? Need I say more?

    I looked at a “Nostalgia Edition” and Candyland the other day and remembered what it was like when we were little. If you landed on one of those black spots, you didn’t just miss one turn–you were stuck until you drew that specific color. You had to get a specific color at the end of the game in order to win. The newer version, which we own, has a rainbow spot at the end, so any color can give you the win. We don’t want our kids to experience frustration and we are breeding adults who can’t deal with frustration or even challenges in general.

    It honestly makes me ill. What is going to happen when all these kids become parents? What kind of children will they raise? Will we continue this downward spiral, requiring less and less and less of our children, but always rewarding them more, until a bachelors degree is the equivalent to yesterday’s 7th grade education? Because I honestly think we’re close. Honestly.

    1. You have to look at teenagers backgrounds before blaming teachers or the schools? Can you imagine growing up in a home where there were no books? Or having to work a full time job by the time you are 15 so that you can try and help your parents make the rent? How about if English is not your first language and you are the child of migrant parents? Or English is simply not your first language? Would any of these situations impact your ability to read or your desire to read? I would argue that they do. These situations are not in the control of teachers or schools. As a high school teacher, I wanted my students to leave my class knowing how to write an essay and how to read and analyze a book. If that book was something that they could related to and that would interest them then I chose it.

  2. I had to respond because reading and writing are so near and dear to my heart. I agree with you about the Kindle. I received one free as part of a school program and after a year, I wiped the dust off and gave it back. I much prefer to hold an actual book. The only time I liked it was when I was exercising.

    In regards to your comments about the high school teacher and reading, the student population needs to be considered. I taught at a low income school in Magna. Students who liked to read and write were not in my classes (for the most part). These students took either AP English, concurrent enrollment English, or Honors English because these students liked reading and writing about what they read. These classes had students reading and discussing the classics and “Lord of the Flies” etc. Now onto my students, which is a different population that the previously mentioned students. Yes, some of my students ready Jane Austin and Grapes of Wrath and loved those books. But, my senior English classes also included many students who were the first people in their families to graduate from high school. I had many students, over 50% of the school spoke English as a second language. Over 75% of my students lived under the poverty level which meant that they were almost all working at least 40 hours a week. I don’t think I dumbed down my class, but I faced the realities of my classroom. I didn’t give students homework because they did not have time to do homework. Most students worked more hours that I did. All reading and activities were done in class. I also had two English classes that were Inclusion classrooms which meant that half the students were special education students. That meant that I had to chose novels that could be read and discussed by ALL my students including those students who read and wrote on a first grade reading level. That is why the high school teacher probably came across as defeatist. Because she probably taught in a similar situation to me. I had students read “Night” which is a great autobiography about the Holocaust. I had students do a lot more writing than reading because most of my students were not college bound and needed writing skills more.

    Sorry for my soap box, but the realities of teaching high school students is different than most people think about. The experiences you described would be similar to my experiences, but then I went to a school where I took mostly honors classes. While not all students were wealthy, there was a strong academic tradition at the school. The school I taught at is for mostly poverty stricken students that in many cases the only meal they had was school lunch. Try telling such a student that knowing a classic piece of literature is more important than working to support the family. It is not that standards are being lowered, it is that student populations are changing and teachers have to change with that.

    Students had to read one book a semester that was at least 200 pages. I would usually have them read different genres to give them more reading experiences. Every Friday was a reading day and they had to bring a book and then read for an hour. I would also read to them every day for 10 minutes. In many cases, this was the first time anyone had ever read them a book. Many students didn’t even have a book in their home. Students backgrounds influence what books are chosen. Just my 2 cents.

  3. Thanks for your comments. I did not mean to disparage the hard work done by many teachers. The daunting odds of class sizes and shrinking budgets make the work of teaching very difficult.

    Here are some of my initial thoughts-

    Poverty has always existed and yet education persisted through Great Depressions and Recessions. If anything literature can give a child the respite from poverty. There are many examples of teachers who have had great success introducing the classics to hard run schools. One of my favorite examples is teacher named Rafe Esquith who in a school with 90% of students beneath the poverty line uses Shakespeare to inspire kids in Inner City LA- http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4608476

    That said, these books don’t have to be classics just something well written like Harry Potter or A Little Princess (or even Percy Jackson or Enders Game). The idea of something being recommendable solely because it is ‘really fast’ seems lame to me. Something can be ‘elevated’ without being highfalutin or long. I’m a huge poetry buff and think it should be studied more in schools and those are mostly short.

    I see it with other forms of entertainment too. Recently I watched Cartoon Network and was amazed at how stupid it all was. It made Ren and Stimpy (a stupid cartoon from my era) look brilliant. Some people believe that you have to dumb things down for kids/teens, but I think the brilliance of Pixar and other companies show that you can have elevated material that is still appealing to young people.

    My main point of writing the post was to not actually comment on teaching but on a general attitude many adults have about young people and kids. This opinion comes from my experience (as your view comes from your experience). I hated when people assumed I couldn’t get something just because I was young. Part of this annoyance is that it contrasted from my home environment where my Mother and I would often have long animated debates on a variety of topics especially politics (a tradition that still continues now!). My opinion was encouraged and respected.

    However, it wasn’t until I went to college that I connected with educational mentors- people who really believed in my ability to do hard things. It was only then that I became a veracious reader and learner. It literally changed the chemical reactions in my brain to have someone who believed in me. I had professors who not only allowed me to read and study but even teach/grade other students. I never felt smart until I went to college and believing I was smart, made me smart. All of the sudden reading, writing, even grammar became fun and exciting and something I had a talent in.

    I remember when I was in high school I had to give a talk on the Old Testament (can’t remember which story). I researched it and prepared the talk entirely on my own. I’ve always been a very confident public speaker, and I think it turned out pretty well. I remember how many people seemed surprised that a teenager could be so knowledgeable and well spoken. I guess I just think that more students would ‘surprise’ the adults of the world if given the chance.

    Thanks again for your comments and what you’ve done for kids. (Just seeing how good a swim teacher you are I can only imagine you are a great regular teacher. Great job!).
    So, there’s my own ramblings right back at you!

    1. I am depressed by your blog entry, it breaks my heart to hear of authors that are against change and teachers who encourage “just getting by” for standards. I would love to hear what her arguement against ebooks was in regards to archival value. I LOVE both of my e-readers, they have given me the chance to branch into emerging authors and re-read classics that i had forgotten about with the added benifit that they are free for download and i can take notes. There are some mediums that are pure paper only, magazines for one, i just cant read one on my NOOK, without getting frustrated.
      As for the “just getting by”, i as a parent would not be able to handle that kind of attude from my son’s teacher. I wonder though if by “fast read” she was talking about the pace of the book not just the lenght. I hated books that start off SLOW, i will skip ahead several chapter to see if it picks up the pace before i say “good-bye” to a slow book. Harry Potter is an excellent example of a “fast read” in my opinion, the reader gets so involved with the book that the pages just slip away. i know that others have spoken of the hardships of being a teacher expecially in a school with high risk students but i was one of those students. My high school,10 years ago, was 75% minority and just over that perctage for students under the poverty line. We were lucky to have teachers that saw the potential of all their students, who challanged us to be better. We read the classics not because they were hard or long but because they held relavency to our lives. Who knows better the bitter sting of betrayl and loss than Hamlet, or the pangs of a love that can not be than Juliet. I strongly believe that just getting them to read isn’t good enough, we must challenge them. We must find a way to encourage the disadvantaged students to excel or they will never exit the cycle of poverty.

      1. Don’t be depressed Mary!
        The argument against ebooks archival value is in regards to the fact that a digital file needs to be constantly updated where a book can be purchased once and be good for hundreds of years (at least the old well made books could, a point she also made). You cold pass down a library in days past but in 50 years my posterity (if I ever have them) will not be using the same kindle that I use and the digital file I purchase will probably be archaic. Even this year the kindle has already changed to the fire and will soon I’m sure be further updated. You also can’t give a book that you’ve read digitally in the same way. You have to purchase it anew for the recipient. If I love a book I can hand it to you and I think there is some value in that.

        Anyway, I appreciate your thoughts on being a low income student. I am sure there are many students who feel your same way. Going into my mission I had many stereotypes and opinions about low income areas but I was surprised at how smart and ambitious nearly everyone I met was. There were so many parents and grandparents trying to raise productive children. Many times the obstacles were daunting but so many of them made it through.

        I am personally in favor of charter schools and vouchers giving children the right to chose the school which will challenge them. Regardless we must work with teachers to ensure our children are getting a quality education. Also, we should be presenting the children in our lives with a variety of reading and learning options. Like I said, they may not like a lot of what we throw at them but keep trying. What bothered me about the teacher was the assumption that teenagers wouldn’t want to put any effort into things and that they needed to be dumbed down. Give them the options as best as you can and then if it is between nothing and ‘just reading’ fine.

        But even if we can’t change the problems with public school I think we can all work on our attitudes towards youth. We can take a second when we want to roll our eyes at their viewpoints and remember what it felt like to be in their shoes (something I am by no means perfect at. Madeline could tell you about that!). If we all work on ourselves and challenge those around us it will make a difference, if only to 1 kid.

        I know the people who reached out to me whether they were teachers or instructors in church or whatever had a tremendous impact on the creation of my character and life choices.

        1. I wasn’t arguing for dumbing down the curriculum. As a teacher to low-income students, I still provided challenging curriculum. We still read Shakespeare and Mark Twain, but how the material was presented has changed. I had classes where over half of my students read below a fifth grade reading level while the rest of the class was either on grade level or above. How do you manage novels that way?
          I found that having students read novels that could be applied to their lives was a way to engage students. Mary, you mentioned that you don’t like reading slow books and will skip chapters to see if the book gets better. Students feel the same way. As a teacher, I was more concerned with my students being able to know how to organize ideas than the fact that they had read the classics. My last year of teaching, we read one autobiography “Night,” had a semester long poetry unit, and spent the rest of the time writing essays, researched arguments, using databases for research, and writing personal statements, resumes, and cover letters. I still required students to do outside reading and present about what they read. I strongly believe that students should find joy in reading and learn how to write.

        2. I’m sure every class is unique and requires a different approach. My point was more about the general attitude of annoyance people often have towards teens.
          I think its great if a book applies to kids lives but I just want it to be well written and not the main requirement being ‘really fast’. Some of the slowest books I’ve ever read have been technically short. (For instance, A Separate Peace is often read in high schools. It is short, and I’ve always hated it. I think its manipulative and boring)
          The classics have stood the test of time but that doesn’t mean there aren’t worthwhile modern books or that they are an unmitigated good. I just think sometimes we make assumptions about youth without giving them the options or chance to express their opinions. You can certainly introduce kids to a variety of styles without necessarily having them read full-fledged novels. For instance, you could have the kids read a sonnet or two and that might be enough to spark an interest for further Shakespearean reading.
          I also agree that kids should enjoy reading but should also be encouraged to step it up one notch from their natural inclinations, expand their horizons.
          I admittedly have a homeschool, alternative education bias but I know many teachers do their best under daunting circumstances and do remarkably well. A 5th grade education for anyone makes me sad.

  4. I think its so funny that you talked about that specific NY Daily news article. Shannon Hale just dissected that particular article on her blog. I agree with a lot of her points. http://oinks.squeetus.com/

    I also agree with your friend Erin. The realities of public school dictate a different kind of thinking. You leave college with your credential in hand thinking you can save the world and in the end you have to boil everything down to the basics and hopefully you can hook some of your students into wanting more. Teachers aren’t creating these types of attitudes in kids. We are given these types of kids and expected to overcome cultural and home life ideas that are at odds with the idea of working hard. I know that your parents took the job of raising you seriously, but sadly a lot of children are not given the same diligent parenting.

    I know this is another controversial topic but I think this is related to having two parents in the workforce. Parenting is now done in a fast few moments in the evening rather than all day. They talk about quality vs. quantity parenting and I think it takes both to truly mold your children. When we farm our children out to day care they pick up the ideals of whatever teacher they may have as well as all the other children in the room. There is a lack of one-on-one interaction and our children are sadly left to their own devices for much of the time.

    President Benson said it better than I can…

    Ezra Taft Benson taught that mother’s influence is vital for developing a child’s character. He said, “It is a fundamental truth that the responsibilities of motherhood cannot be successfully delegated. No, not to day-care centers, not to schools, not to nurseries, not to babysitters. We become enamored with men’s theories such as the idea of preschool training outside the home for young children. Not only does this put added pressure on the budget, but it places young children in an environment away from mother’s influence. Too often the pressure for popularity, on children and teens, places an economic burden on the income of the father, so mother feels she must go to work to satisfy her children’s needs. That decision can be most shortsighted. It is mother’s influence during the crucial formative years that forms a child’s basic character. Home is the place where a child learns faith, feels love, and thereby learns from mother’s loving example to choose righteousness. How vital are mother’s influence and teaching in the home-and how apparent when neglected!” (Ensign, Nov. 1981, p. 104)
    http://ldshomeschoolinginca.org/preschool.html

    1. Thanks for the comment. The second article I posted is from Shannon Hale’s blog so it was interesting to read her follow up comments. I like that her guest blogger said “I believe in a heavy diet of variety.” I like that she also said “text complexity is not determined by the age of the story. Nor is it determined by how many elite academics say it is important. Instead, I think it is determined by narrative style, variance in characterization, theme, layers of irony, the use of figurative language or allusions to other texts”

      I agree with all of that. As I mentioned in my piece I also think the way texts are dissected and combed over in class ostracizes some students from reading and quality literature. In a discussion I had with a highly educated guy friend of mine from high school I asked him why boys tend to have a harder time getting into reading. He said:

      “I’ve always read a lot of history and non-fiction. I was just never interested in reading and discussing what they had assigned. I especially hated discussing character motivations, emotions and the like. Why would I ever care what a fictional character is supposed to be thinking and feeling…by definition they can never do either of these things”

      I think a lot of teens feel this way- especially boys. It is perhaps impossible to present literature in a way that captures the curiosity of every child (part of the reason I am for homeschool is because I can teach/provide educators for my unique child’s style but that’s another post). Even though it is a difficult task we should give up. I like the example of Rafe Esquith and other teachers who keep pressing forward despite tremendous odds (see link above). Very inspiring!

      To your other point about quality time with parents. I agree. We are too quick to pass teaching opportunities on to outside resources, even Sesame Street. When using those resources and teachers we should be guiding them and reinforcing what is being taught. No teacher can do it alone for every child. It is impossible. They may be able to mentor one or two children away from a troubled home but those are the exceptions not the rule. People can even lean to much on the church to teach their children important truths.

      That said, every family is different and must make those choices. I am not judging anyone for how they raise their kids. I just think we should respect teens and kids and not dumb things down or assume they won’t like something merely because of their age. Give them a chance. That was the main point of my post.

      Phew…long comments on this one!

  5. my husband and i were talking about cartoon network the other day, he made the comment “cartoons have gotten a lot stupider since i was a kid and i watched Ren and Stimpy!”

    1. They really have and they seem very loud, abrasive and brusk to me. Cartoons used to be either sweet and simple for girls or fun and adventurous for boys. Now it is just loud and sarcastic.
      You should see the new Winnie the Pooh. It is perfect for young kids. Sweet, gentle, funny and actually quite clever. Wonderful (Also perfect length for young children- 60 min I believe)

  6. I love that this post is inspiring comments. That’s just what I wanted. Both Mary and Emily deserve thoughtful responses and I just got back from a long day at work, so you will get them tomorrow. Love you guys!
    Now I have a strange craving for Ren and Stimpy…

  7. I will have to think about this one for a while. But I do love literature and don’t think it is good for teens to be forced to read books because instead of it being pleasure it wll be pain and inconvenunce. Of course all of my friends besides afew don’t like reading and only read the stupid books about prom, and boys and girls in weird boyfriend girlfriend relasionships. These books should be thrown in the dumpster as far as I’m councered. I would much rather read novels like pride and prejudice and jane eyre.
    Anyways, this is just my opionion. ( I probroally have lots of misspellings in this)…… 🙂 ps. I’m a teen :

    1. Thanks Madi! I love your comment most of all. Have you read Jane Eyre? We should totally talk about it. Its one of my favorites. I agree with you stick that fluffy is the equivalent of book candy- it may be fun but has no real nourishing value. In fact, the prom books usually make me feel bad about myself because I’m not dating the cutest boy or get a makeover that turns me from nerd to hot instantaneously.
      What has a teacher/adult done that has worked to help you like reading? Also, are there books that you wouldn’t find out about without a teacher/adult suggesting them or do you find most books out by yourself?
      You are a great teen! Sorry if I get a little persnickety at home. I just miss being with my friends, apartment, life and get a little restless.

    1. that is a little extreame, board books of lit. classics. A friend from my ward has some for her little ones, i laugh each time i see them.

      1. I know so funny. I do like the graphics on them but who would have thought Jane Eyre for babies! Now that’s being open-minded in reading suggestions to all ages!

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